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Think Japanese art and you’ll likely conjure a dizzying array of images in your head. To even the most casual observer, everything from silk calligraphy and pottery to manga drawings and woodblock prints will spring to mind. Visitors with a slightly better grasp of Japanese culture will be familiar with Yayoi Kusama, who at a sprightly 90 years of age is arguably the hottest artist of the moment, famed for her polka dots and pumpkins, and now has her eponymous museum in Shinjuku. Or Yoko Ono, whose performance art and installations are often built around public interaction. You may have also heard of Mariko Mori, whose works take inspiration from science fiction, such as her site-specific architectural sculpture ‘Wave UFO’ (2003).
Then there’s Yoshitomo Nara, who is best known for his paintings and sculptures of adorable yet sinister-looking children and animals, which actually explore a deeper narrative of Japan’s youth subculture. And of course, Takashi Murakami, who is perhaps the most influential Japanese contemporary artist, continues to fuse traditional art with Japanese pop culture.
These artists have all rightly earned global recognition for shaping the art world’s perception of modern Japanese art beyond the obvious historical perceptions. They are also just the tip of the iceberg that is Japan’s fertile art scene. And what unites them all is a thrillingly diverse array of creativity that is at once familiar and yet utterly different to anything beyond the shores of Japan. All this is arguably thanks to it being borne out of the nation’s past struggles to decide whether to embrace the outside world or go it alone, as a potted history of its art bears witness.